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Why sexual harassment victims get the blame

"Well, what was she wearing to work?" "How did she talk to him?" "Did she lead him on?" "Did she smile a lot?"

Those are the kinds of questions that people often ask when they hear that a female co-worker has been sexually harassed by a male co-worker or boss. They are questions that automatically imply that the woman -- somehow -- invited the harassment and is (at minimum) partially responsible for her own predicament.

Why is victim-blaming so common? Two studies recently looked at that very issue and came to the same conclusion: People feel more empathy for the male harasser than the female victim.

In essence, the research indicates that the "dark side of empathy" tends to make men and women alike able to see themselves in the harasser's shoes. They can easily start to see the repercussions of being called out on harassment on the man's life, family and career.

This actually has some stunning real-world implications. A lot of effort is expended trying to make people empathize harder with the victims of sexual harassment, understand what they experience and why certain actions are wrong. It may be far more effective, however, to focus on teaching people not to empathize with the harasser. Teaching people to emotionally remove themselves from the situation and see the harasser's actions for what they are -- without the added "noise" of what being formally accused of harassment will do to his life -- could help change the dynamics in the workplace for the better.

Part of the problem, psychologists say, is that people often fall into the trap of believing that "people get what they have coming to them." It's a way of avoiding the uncomfortable reality that bad things can happen to anybody -- at any time. If you can talk yourself into believing that the world is a just place, you can avoid seeing yourself in the victim's shoes.

Understanding the biases that influence human beliefs is a way to start correcting them -- and a way to end sexual harassment in the workplace. If you've been victimized, don't let anyone's biases (including your own) keep you from speaking out and seeking help.

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